Testimony of Rachel White, Senior Youth Policy Analyst, before the Committee on Housing

April 4, 2024
Testimony
Person Testifying: Rachel White
Title: Senior Youth Policy Analyst, DC Action
Testimony Heard By: Committee on Housing
Type of Hearing: Budget Hearing

Good morning Chairman White and staff of the Committee on Housing. I’m Rachel White, Senior Youth Policy Analyst at  DC Action. We use research, data, collective action, and a racial equity lens to break down barriers that stand in the way of all kids reaching their full potential. We are also the home of DC KIDS COUNT, an online resource that tracks key indicators of child and youth well-being. 

DC Action is home to four coalitions, including the Youth Economic Justice and Housing Coalition, which advocates with youth and youth-serving organizations in the District of Columbia for policies, funding, and programs that expand access to comprehensive support and services that youth experiencing homelessness need to successfully transition into stable and productive adulthood. 

Together with our coalition partners, we have advocated for data- and accountability-driven solutions to end youth homelessness and disrupt the pipeline of young people entering into the District’s adult homeless system. Nearly a decade ago, in fall 2015, the District conducted its first annual Homeless Youth Census (HYC) as a provision of the End Youth Homelessness Act of 2014. Data gathered from the first HYC demonstrated the need for a coordinated plan to address the unique needs of youth ages 16 to 24 experiencing homelessness. This led to the 2017 creation of Solid Foundations DC by the ICH as the District’s first-ever data-driven plan focused on the needs of unaccompanied youth

Solid Foundations was intended to serve as a roadmap for building an effective system of care for unaccompanied youth experiencing or at risk of homelessness with a goal of ending youth homelessness by 2022. The District has not met this goal. Oversight answers from the Department of Human Services confirm what our coalition partners have been observing through their work, that there is actually an increase in youth homelessness. The budget for youth homeless services has increased only 20% since Fiscal Year 2020, when the Department of Human Services started tracking youth housing as a distinct program area, despite the District seeing a more than 50% increase in youth experiencing homelessness since the inaugural publishing of the Solid Foundations strategic plan to end youth homelessness in the District

Despite being further away from ending youth homelessness today than we were at the release of Solid Foundations in 2017, we have been told by the ICH that there are no plans to assess and update the critical strategic plan and we see in the Mayor’s proposed FY25 budget a net decrease of more than $400,000 in funding levels for our youth system. Reducing funding and failing to operate from a strategic plan that aligns efforts across government, guides government partnership with nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, and is driven by youth input, will significantly undermine the District’s efforts to make homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring.     

You will hear from government witnesses this afternoon that ICH does not have the capacity to engage in the process of updating Solid Foundation and that their focus should be on implementation instead. And yesterday, Councilmember, you asked the question, “where is the breakdown occurring” regarding increased spending yet negligible results. Our theory, at DC Action, is that the District is operating far too often without intentional plans, without community input and buy-in on plans, and without meaningful evaluation and course correction of plans when they do exist. Your committee can reduce these kinds of breakdowns by legislating ICH to update their strategic plan to end youth homelessness at least every five years, coupled with an annual progress report to mirror plan reporting requirements for unhoused families and singles. Please work with the Health committee to adopt Budget Support Act language and any funding required to mandate timely updates to a Solid Foundations plan that gets the District back on track to reduce youth homelessness.

Related, insufficient funding levels is another chronic breakdown in the District’s social safety net. In FY23 the District served roughly 1,800 unaccompanied youth – a small portion of the youth experiencing homeless or housing instability – yet we only fund 715 youth beds, meeting the needs of just 39% of youth seeking housing support. Providers – and the youth they serve – cannot absorb budget cuts, especially when the District is already behind on making FY24 grant payments and has failed for multiple years to pay indirect overhead costs as required by law. Councilmember, we ask that you dig into the proposed FY25 budget cuts with Director Zeilinger to understand what the following losses equate to in terms of service provider grants, loss in number of beds, or changes in types of beds and services we are funding:

  • $443,000 decrease in permanent supportive housing, otherwise known as extended transitional housing in the youth system.
  • $347,000 decrease in the youth homelessness services continuum which supports drop-in centers among other programs.
  • Millions of dollars in cuts to family housing programs which many parenting youth depend on when the youth system’s very limited capacity (only 20 transitional housing beds) runs out. How much of the cut is Medicaid cost savings vs net cuts in terms of youth served? 

Lastly, we stand in solidarity with the DC LGBTQ+ Budget Coalition and ask that funding allocated to the Transgender and Gender Nonconforming workforce development programs for people experiencing homelessness is maintained as we know transgender and gender non-conforming youth and adults face disproportionate barriers to housing and employment and the District is not doing enough to support their success. 

In conclusion, the District will only be successful in ending youth homelessness if we increase public investment in our young people, fully fund the youth homelessness sector with no fear of annual or mid year budget cuts, and by updating the District’s strategic plan to end youth homelessness. Thank you and my full written testimony has been uploaded  to the committee portal prior to the hearing. I would be pleased to answer any questions.